Jean Paul Sartre biography Philosophy ~ Existentialism
Jean Paul Sartre biography Philosophy ~ Existentialism
Jean Paul Sartre was born in Paris, June 21, 1905 as the
first child of a marriage entered into a little over a year
previously. His father, Jean-Baptiste, had meanwhile died of an
infection contracted whilst serving in the French navy, Jean Paul
grew up in the home of his maternal grandfather, Karl
This Karl Schwietzer was a professor of German language at
the Sorbonne, the author of numerous published works, and also an
uncle of the celebrated medical missionary Albert Schwietzer.
Other circumstances than the demise of his father also
conspired to make Sartre's childhood difficult. He was noticeably
small in stature and obviously cross-eyed besides being
over-intelligent and bookish. His mother was also cloyingly
The difficulty Sartre found in gaining acceptance, and his
precociousness, together with grandfather Karl's tutoring, led to
his putting together a book entitles Les Mots (The Words) which
related the experience of himself and his mother in the
Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in search of childhood
Sartre attended the Lycée Henri IV in Paris for a time
from the autumn of 1915 and then, after his mother's re-marriage
to Joseph Mancy, the lycée in La Rochelle where he proved
to be an ill-behaved pupil. In an attempt to achieve some reform
in Sartre's behavior it was arranged that he would re-attend the
Lycée Henri IV as a boarder. His best friend at this
school, Paul-Yves Nizan, was notable for his deep distress at the
existence of social injustices. In the autumn of 1922 the two
friends were among those that transferred from their Lycée
to the select Lycée Louis-le-Grand.
Sartre was subsequently educated at the prestigious
Écôle Normale Supérieure in Paris where he
principally studied philosophy taking some of his classes at the
During his years of education in Paris he met Simone de
Beauvoir (with whom he formed a settled long term relationship
without actually living together), Raymond Aron, Simone Weil,
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Claude Lévi-Strauss and others who
were later prominent in the Beaux Arts or politics.
Following a period of conscripted military service he
taught philosophy at various lycées from 1931. These
teaching duties were interrupted in 1933 by his spending a year
in Berlin studying an emergent philosophy - phenomenology - and
attending lectures given by its founder Edmund Husserl.
Phenomenology exhibits a concern with the "properties and
essence" of things.
Sartre's novel La Nausée (Nausea) was published in
He was inducted into the French military following the
outbreak of European war in 1939 and was detailed to serve in a
meterological section charged with the management of weather
balloons. He was subsequently captured in June 1940 and
imprisoned into 1941 by the Germans.
After his release on the grounds that the Germans did not
think he was physically fit for military service, Sartre taught
in Neuilly, France, and later in Paris, and was active in the
The German authorities, unaware of his underground
activities, permitted the production of his anti-authoritarian
play The Flies (1943) and the publication of his major
philosophic work Being and Nothingness (1943).
The atheistic, humanistic, and socialistic, approach to
existentialism attributable to Sartre received a cult following
amongst a substantial section of the European youth and
intelligentsia from circa 1945 so it might be as well at this
stage to attempt to relate some slight intimations as to what
Sartre's approach to Existential philosophy involved at this
The word nausea is used for the individual's recognition of
the pure contingency of the universe, and the word anguish is
used for the recognition of the total freedom of choice that
confronts the individual at every moment.
In his early philosophic work, Being and Nothingness,
written whilst a prisoner of war, humans were conceived as beings
who create their own world by rebelling against authority and by
accepting personal responsibility for their actions, unaided by
society, traditional morality, or religious faith.
In terms of phenomenology Jean Paul Sartre's Existentialism
maintains that in man, and in man alone, existence preceded
essence. This simply means that man first is, and only
subsequently is this or that. In a word, man must create his own
essence: it is in throwing himself into the world, suffering
there, struggling there, that he gradually defines himself. And
the definition always remains open ended: we cannot say what this
man is before he dies, or what mankind is before it has
Sartre based his Existentialism on human free will. As
individuals are free, from the moment of conception, they define
their essence throughout their existence. A person's nature is
what he or she has done in the past and what that person is doing
at the moment. No one is complete until death, when
self-definition ceases. Then, how others interpret the individual
is based upon the individual's accomplishments and failings.
Existential morality arises from the fact that all choices
affect others, physically and emotionally. Social responsibility
results from the interdependencies of individuals. Since any
living person is engaged in the process of defining self and
others, ethics develop accordingly. Since the existentialist
values free will and wants others to respect his or her freedom,
the ethical system developed is based upon free expression.
Sartre's philosophy is explicitly atheistic and
pessimistic; he declared that human beings require a rational
basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one, and thus
human life is a "futile passion." He nevertheless insisted that
his Existentialism is a form of humanism, and he strongly
emphasized human freedom, choice, and responsibility. This
approach, which relates philosophical theory to life, literature,
psychology, and political action, stimulated so much popular
interest that it became a worldwide movement.
Sartre gave up teaching in 1945 and founded the political
and literary magazine Les Temps Modernes, of which he became
editor in chief. This magazine seemingly took its name from the
Charlie Chaplin film "Modern Times".
Although after the Second World War Jean Paul Sartre's
philosophical approach enjoyed a cult status and was taken up by
the young and trendy and many intellectuals he himself moved
somewhat away from the philosophy that he had helped to make
famous and towards a greater involvement with leftist politics of
a Marxist tendency.
He was active after 1947 as an independent Socialist,
critical of both the USSR and the United States in the so-called
cold war years. Later, he supported Soviet positions but still
frequently criticized Soviet policies.
Most of Sartre's writing of the 1950s deals with literary
and political problems. Sartre rejected the 1964 Nobel Prize in
literature, explaining that to accept such an award would
compromise his integrity as a writer. He offered moral support to
the students of Paris during those 1968 events when they were in
open conflict with the authorities.
Jean Paul Sartre impaired his health by smoking and
drinking immoderately and on 15 April 1980 he died of a smoking
related complaint. More than 25,000 people lined the streets of
Paris for the funeral procession on 19 April 1980. Sartre's ashes
were buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery. Later, Simone de
Beauvoir's ashes were buried next to his.
Is Human Being more truly Metaphysical than Physical?